Friday, August 28, 2009

Art House Salad: COLD SOULS

Dishing on the latest blend of alternative flicks being tossed around in limited release
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Dir. Sophie Barthes
Samuel Goldwyn Films
101 min. PG-13

When Prozac and Zoloft just won't cut it, the chemically imbalanced (or simply unsatisfied) folks in first-time feature filmmaker Sophie Barthes' surrealist comedy “Cold Souls” turn to a company that offers them the ultimate cure: soul extraction, which, as described by the company's president, makes “everything more functional and purposeful.” Paul Giamatti, who plays himself in the film, lands in an emotionally crippling creative slump while rehearsing his role in a production of Chekhov's “Uncle Vanya.” After reading about said company in The New Yorker, the tormented actor elects to undergo said procedure, which involves lying inside a sleek device that looks like an MRI machine manufactured by Apple. Once removed, Giamatti's soul – much to his dismay – is revealed to be a dead ringer for a chick pea, and is placed in cold storage until further notice. Relieved of irksome human burdens like melancholy, remorse and self-doubt, Giamatti feels “hollow” and “lighter,” even though his famously average outward appearance looks droopier than ever.

It doesn't take long for complications to ensue. His droopiness is soon coupled with loopiness, and – much to his wife's and director's dismay – he begins to lose control of his inner monologue, among other things. Once he has the soul of a Russian poet implanted (the feed works both ways, and the business has a shady international market), he does nail his stage performance, but his chick pea winds up in St. Petersburg, transferred into the body of a talentless soap star who's husband dictates the Russian soul trade.

Giamatti – who really let himself go for the role, his facial hair so overgrown it seems to curl over his teeth – has a ball with the waggish self-parody, and once again captures the frustations of a poor schlub who's as real as any guy you'd pass on the street. When Barthes follows him (which is through about 90 percent of the movie), her handheld camera is loose and shaky – in sync with his precarious state of being. Her somber, gray palette, accented with fuzzy wisps of light, is a good match for the film's deadpan humor, and strongly conveys the adrift tone of Giamatti's literal soul search (especially when that search takes him to the appropriately gloomy landscapes of Russia).

Of course, Barthes' script owes much of its inspiration to Charlie Kaufman, whose similar “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” were never far from my thoughts throughout “Cold Souls.” However, the cinema certainly has room for more quirky, existential explorers, and the ideas presented in this reasonably impressive debut suggest that Barthes is a talent to watch. Surprisingly, one of the areas in which her movie falls short is the development/treatment of the female characters. It's Giamatti's journey, yes, but the dynamite talents of Emily Watson are wasted in the thankless role of Giamatti's little-seen wife; and Dina Korzun, who's soul-trafficking Russian mule is without question the most interesting part of the story, is a little short-changed by a screenplay that doesn't care enough about her character.

The film isn't howlingly funny, but then, it doesn't mean to be. Its jokes are nicely understated, and the most unsubtle is a well-played sight gag of a salad covered in garbanzo beans. I enjoyed the tone, which is at once light and heavy. There's a fun yet tragic fascination to this odd little yarn. Still, I can't get past the feeling that it's a bit of trifle – a here today, gone tomorrow title. The company president, played with poker-faced precision by David Strathairn, says that he and his colleagues don't know if souls are immortal. I don't believe “Cold Souls” is, but here, today, I think of it fondly and recommend it especially to the chemically imbalanced.
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Summer in the Cinema, Part I

The Best of the 2009 Summer Movie Season
By R. Kurt Osenlund

While most people were sunning at the beach or drinking daiquiris by the pool, odds are I was in a dark, air-conditioned room with stadium seating, gazing up at a massive screen. If movies are made for escapism, then summer movies are made to be all-inclusive vacations, attempting to feed our hungry senses while satisfying our need to get away. Admittedly, very few of these vacations are worthy of five stars, but some, just some, are well worth writing home about. Herein are the highlights of the many trips I took this summer.

Best Eye Candy:

Though Dangerous Liaisons director Stephen Frears' second outing with Michelle Pfeiffer doesn't exactly bring the drama (the folks who accompanied me to my screening nearly fell asleep), its lavish, sparkling look is a potpourri of aesthetic pleasures. Based on two 1920s Colette novels about an aging, 19th century French courtesan deep in love with a man decades her junior, Chéri reveals more sumptuous splendor at every turn. From Judy Farr's and Véronique Melery's no-expense-spared set decoration to Consolata Boyle's sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated costume design, the film is an almost sinful visual feast. And gleaming at the center of it all is Pfeiffer, an actress whose beauty only magnifies with time. She's never looked better, and nothing looked better at the movies this summer than Chéri.

Best Couple:
Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer

In interviews promoting (500) Days of Summer, music video vet Marc Webb's artful and chronologically jumbled “anti-romantic comedy,” indie darlings Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt expressed a mutual aspiration to become the next Hepburn and Tracy. With what is only their second on-screen coupling (they were previously seen canoodling in 2003's troubled teen drama Manic), these born co-stars may well have already achieved their goal. As Tom and Summer, two California lovebirds whose brief union is doomed from the start, Zooey and Joey have phenomenal chemistry, to the point that you sincerely wish the romance would spill over into real life, a la Katherine and Spencer. As the title promises, Tom and Summer's relationship lasts only 500 days, but the immeasurably charming, 95-minute glimpse of it captured on film is something to cherish forever.

Best Comeback:
Sandra Bullock in The Proposal

The Proposal
is the kind of made-from-recycled-material movie that's so familiar, many of the scenes play out in your head just seconds before they unfold on screen. Of the few surprises, the most pleasant is by far Bullock's return-to-form performance, her funniest and most disarming since 2000's Miss Congeniality. Playing an icy, fashionable editrix on loan from The Devil Wears Prada, Bullock transforms what's become a prototypical character into a vessel with which to remind us of her Lucille Ball-like gifts as a physical comedienne. Back doing what she does best (we'll forget about her last film, 2007's dead-weight thriller Premonition), she makes The Proposal great fun despite its formula, and even upstages co-star Betty White, which is no easy task.

Best Makeover:
Tom Hanks in Angels & Demons

Director Ron Howard did indeed pump up the adrenaline for his second Dan Brown book translation, but perhaps the biggest improvement since The Da Vinci Code is the nixing of Hanks' horse-mane-meets-mullet hairdo. Rarely has an actor's coif put such a damper on the credibility of the character he's playing. Hanks' Robert Langdon still sounds a little loony in A&D, spitting out convoluted exposition like a crackpot camel, but at least he's finally got some sane-looking style.

Best Wake-Up Call:
Food, Inc.

Think you know where your food comes from? Think again. Documentary filmmaker Robert Kenner one-ups his peer Morgan Spurlock in a super-sized way, exposing the unsettling underbelly of not just fast-food chains, but our beloved, seemingly hunky-dory supermarkets. The latest non-fiction flick to shake up audiences with scary statistics, Food, Inc. may just change the way you look at everything you consume, from curiously out-of-season tomatoes to unnaturally large chicken breasts. Both frightening and fascinating, it claims that corrupt, conglomerate-owned factories are the sources of our sustenance, not down-home farms as the labels suggest. Unless you can afford to eat only organic, or live within reasonable range of a local farmers' market, chances are you're chowing down on grub that's been artificially enhanced or raised via extremely unethical means. So much for the guilt-free diet.

Best Villain:
Michael Bay, director, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Alan Rickman's slithery Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Lorna Raver's grotesque Mrs. Ganush from Drag Me to Hell were close runners-up, but none of this season's fictional foes could out-nasty Bay, whose frantic and bombastic Transformers sequel is an all-out attack on the cerebral cortex. On top of his smug disregard for characterization, coherent storytelling or viewer sanity, the director – who's name is now firmly cemented on practically every critic's love-to-hate list – throws in offensive racial stereotypes, flagrant female objectification and enough grinding metal to make your eardrums cry for help. The blockbuster's obscenely hefty box-office take has Bay toiling away on the series' third installment, proving that, sadly, there's no rest for the wicked.

Best Funnyman:
Sacha Baron Cohen in Brüno

Mike Myers was SO nineties. Baron Cohen is Hollywood's new one-man army of laugh-'til-you-cry humor, creating and portraying some of the craziest comedic characters of contemporary film. First came Ali G., then Borat, and now, Brüno, a flamboyant, fame-seeking fashionista who's arguably the controversial satirist's wildest persona to date. Brimming with envelope-pushing, gasp-inducing gags, Brüno exhibits its star's best-in-the-business slapstick skills and acerbic wit in equal measure while following him from mishap to mishap with an unflinching eye. But if you think Baron Cohen is just about sex jokes and shock value, look closer: in Brüno, this Cambridge-educated Brit initiates a campaign against intolerance, pointing out the absurdities of stereotypes and right-wing homophobia. His power to elicit irresistible belly laughs makes him an asset to the comedy genre, but his ability to shake things up on a larger scale makes him a rather vital cultural figure.

Best Performance You Didn't See:
Nicole Beharie in American Violet

Juilliard grad Beharie is only 5 feet 6 inches tall, but her presence in director Tim Disney's woman-versus-the-system drama American Violet is anything but petite. A tremendous talent, she towers above a script that's more fit for Lifetime than the big screen, bringing furious life and genuine emotion to a wrongfully accused mother of four whose uphill battle for justice made headlines in 2000. It's an unforgettable breakthrough performance, and if the film in which it appears were stronger, it's safe to assume that Beharie would be among the ladies vying for this year's Academy Award for Best Actress.

Best Performance You Did See:
Zachary Quinto in Star Trek

I'm no Trekkie, and if there's one thing I was concerned about when walking into J.J. Abrams' re-tooling of Gene Roddenberry's classic franchise, it was being bombarded with a galaxy's worth of geeky, pretentious lingo. But, like The West Wing meets Starship Troopers, this exciting new Trek is an awesome blend of smarts and accessibility, and no actor handles the quick-witted dialogue more convincingly than Quinto as the legendary Mr. Spock. As the Heroes star deftly navigates the origins of his iconic character, his dead-ringer likeness to Leonard Nimoy becomes secondary to his impressive ability to make the role of the emotionally challenged Vulcan his own. With sharp articulation, strong focus and calculated control, Quinto steals the show, giving us that rare bit of sci-fi acting: a performance that's much more flesh-and-blood than fantastical.

Best Overall Experience:

As a brand, Pixar has indisputably become the most dependable and worthwhile bang for your movie buck, whether you're a 10-year-old kid or his 70-year-old grandfather. In a new bout of brilliance, those visionary architects of pixelated nirvana have offered a title that celebrates and is thus especially catered to that latter demographic, more than ever making the kiddie entertainment a mere launchpad for a higher narrative purpose. Up – which at its shallowest depths is about an old man who flies away on an incredible journey when he ties thousands of helium balloons to his house – is surely the most mature film in the Pixar ouevre, addressing grown-up issues of old age, mortality and loss with a sincerity never before seen in the world of mainstream CG toons. It is all the while gleefully high-spirited, simply and subtly clever, adventure-filled, well drawn in every sense and very, very funny. To say that it's not as over-the-moon stupendous as last year's Wall-E is like saying that diamonds aren't as good as gold. Up is pure cinema bliss, and it's easily one of the best movies of the year.

Note: This list was compiled in the beginning of August, before I'd seen District 9, Julie & Julia, Inglourious Basterds or The Hurt Locker (in fact, I still haven't seen The freakin' Hurt Locker).
*This article was previously published in the August 2009 issue of ICON magazine and has been reprinted with permission.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Sigourney Plug is Worth a Thousand Teasers

It was just about three months ago when I first heard Sigourney Weaver eloquently plug James Cameron's "Avatar" (in which Ms. Ellen Ripley plays a scientist). In this curiously super-watchable video from Trailer Addict, Weaver excitingly and convincingly discusses the film as though it were the next "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings" -- a blockbuster motion picture that will revolutionize the biz. (Even more enjoyable is seeing and hearing Mary "Battlestar Galactica" McDonnell's giddy reaction to Weaver's spiel.)

And now we've all been served our first glimpse of "Avatar," and many of us have even been given a 15-minute sneak peek. More than a little disappointed by the unveiling, I find myself wishing I could wind back the clock and return to the time when all we had were whispers and promises from people like Weaver. The teaser -- which, like most recent trailers, is edited with frantic, excessive force -- doesn't deliver on those promises.

Aside from the fact that the connective tissue of an urgent storyline is virtually nowhere to be found, the motion-capture CGI looks far from revolutionary. The blue-skinned lifeforms on the star/planet Pandora are dangerously resemblant to video game characters, an observation I wasn't expecting to have while watching a preview for what purports to be a game-changer.

What did impress me were the otherworldly environments (love the hovering islands), the "Aliens"-like militarism, and the sheer depth of field of the airborne action sequences. But if this is to be as character-driven as Cameron's previous films, it would appear that there is much to be desired. I wouldn't normally make all these statements based on a trailer alone (since so many of them now seem to mislead under the totalitarian, get-the-butts-in-the-seats control of the major studios), but this particular preview was heralded with enough marketing to power the movie's actual release date. As is too often the case, the hype created an unfillable hole in the imaginations of us anticipatory movie buffs.

Cameron, of course, is still in post-production on "Avatar," meaning December's end result could still wow the pants off of viewers everywhere. But if we are to react to this first taste with the same seriousness as we would a feature film, I'll say that "Wow" was about the furthest thing from my mind. Perhaps a new version, re-edited with comforting, well-spoken, promise-filled narration from Sigourney Weaver, would put me at ease.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

If Only

...there were more hours in a day. Or more days in a year. Or fewer movies in a year. What am I babbling about? As 2009 presses on, the list of movies I've missed while engaging in other work so as to keep the bills under control is steadily growing. Unlike most critics, I'm only allotted space for one full review per week, with a few additional web-based critiques and juicy compilation pieces thrown in. But, on average, there are about seven films released each week, which, if you do the math, means quite a few have slipped through the cracks. I try to see as many additional titles as I can in my leisure, but, while also attempting to maintain a fulfilling life outside of the cinema, I'm usually no match for the frequency in which modern flicks are churned out.

This week, I'll be reviewing "District 9," which looks outstanding. However, since going to the movies recreationally has grown exorbitantly expensive, that also means I'll likely be missing Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo," also opening Friday (I will, of course, at the very least, catch it on DVD, but by that time the relevance, naturally, will have diminished somewhat). I find it personally shameful that I've not yet caught Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," the press screening for which I was unable to attend and the venues for which are currently limited. The fact that I might not view this highly lauded picture on the big screen is not something I take lightly. And, hell, I wouldn't even mind sitting through a showing of "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra." After all, there's always room for a little Stephen Sommers bashing.

But, alas, I simply don't have the time. Film writing, though without question my number one professional passion, is not my official full-time job. Sadly, I do not have the resources or the outlets to view and review every release that comes down the pike. So, I suppose this is a good time to throw out an open plea: Reader, if you are affiliated with an entertainment publication and enjoy what you see here, give me a shout. I'd be happy to share my insights and passions with your readership. In the meantime, since I'm such a big fan of lists anyway, here are the 2009 films that have thus far eluded me, and that I simply can't wait to watch. That is, when I find the time.

-The Class (now on DVD!)
-Duplicity (arriving on DVD soon!)
-The Girlfriend Experience
-Rudo y Cursi
-Anvil! The Story of Anvil
-Paper Heart
-The Cove
-The Beaches of Agnes
-Cold Souls
...and more, of course.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Julia & Jane

With Nora Ephron's "Julie & Julia" still only in its first day of theatrical release, we've already got another 2009 Meryl Streep project to gander at -- "It's Complicated," written and directed by Nancy Meyers. Meryl, it seems, is really making the rounds, cashing in on her newfound clout as a blockbuster heavyweight and collaborating with Hollywood's most prominent female hitmakers. "Complicated" -- which is due in December -- looks conspicuously like Meyers' "Something's Gotta Give," showcasing its leading lady's ageless beauty and still-alive sex drive. Will Meryl's presence alone be enough to refresh what appears to be a familiar formula? Assuming that her work in "Julie & Julia" lands her in the supporting category, might she earn double nominations at the Globes...or even the Oscars?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tron Trailer

Now, here's a film I'd actually like to see in 3-D, preferably IMAX 3-D. I'd imagine my pants are much drier than those of the video game-obsessed fanboys who were present for the Comic-Con premiere of this "Tron: Legacy" trailer, but I'll freely admit that it's some pretty-darn-cool lookin' (and very cool soundin') stuff. I especially like the whole minimalist look -- adds to the drama. (Did you hear that, Michael Bay?)